Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Edison Film Studios

Cartoons on Tour (1915)

This short from Edison is another very basic animated cartoon – with a live action wrap-around story – from the silent era. Most of the animated sequences are devoted to low humor and slapstick, although the final animated sequence is meant to be uplifting, or at least charming, by comparison.

The movie begins by establishing a young country girl (Maxine Brown) who is waiting on her porch with a comic book for her lover to take her and elope. Her father (William Chalfin) comes out to say good day on his way about some errand and she hides the letter and the marriage license in the comic book. Then, she begins to read, which takes us into the world of the “Animated Grouch Chasers” comic and “The Tales of Silas Bunkum.” Here, a group of rural rubes is sitting around telling tall tales, establishing a second wrap-around story. One tells of a time when he was stranded on a desert island with nothing but a snuff box. We see him take a pinch and sneeze, then he comes upon an elephant who is crying for some reason. The farmer offers the elephant some snuff and it sneezes so hard that it blows him onto the deck of a passing ship. We come out of the story-within-a-story to see the farmer’s companions knock him off his perch for lying. “Folks don’t beleive [sic] nuthin’ no more,” he complains. We now come back to the live-action world to find the girl laughing hysterically at the cartoon.

Now the beau (Johnnie Walker) arrives in his car, but he’s having mechanical problems. The girl manages to locate the problem by putting her hand on the motor at random, and the two are off. The soon overtake her father, and they offer him a ride, without saying where they are going. They give him the comic book to distract him. He reads about “The Kelly Kids’ Kite.” This is another animated sequence in which a small child is given a kite string to hold, only to be pulled high into the air and suffer an encounter with an aggressive bird. There’s an unfortunate caricature of an African American child in this one, which I won’t go into, but the end result is the child losing his grip, but his petticoats open up like a parachute and allow him to land safely in a bale of hay before being chased off by the farmer whose sleep he disturbed. Once they arrive at the pastor’s the father continues to read “Mr. Hicks in Nightmareland.” This story involves a misbehaving child-sized husband with a much larger, domineering wife. As the story opens, he’s using a telescope to ogle a bathing woman, but his wife puts a stop to that and holds him in her lap. Mr.s Hicks now dozes off and we see his dreams. He finds the fountain of youth and takes a swim, apparently becoming a baby about the age of the child in the previous film (though with a mustache). He runs away from a frog and steals a bottle from another child before finding a pretty woman and climbing into her lap. Of course, as he goes to give her a kiss he wakes up and finds himself kissing his own wife. The father finds this the funniest comic he’s read so far.

However, now he finds the letter and realizes why the car has been parked in front of a minister’s house so long, and he runs in to remonstrate with the now-wedded couple. They put him at ease by showing him a final comic, “The Pleasure of Being a Grandpa,” which depicts an old man dozing and dreaming of bouncing a little one on his knee. This brings the family together, reconciled.

This movie closely resembles the work of Winsor McCay, and there are some indications that the creator, Raoul Barré, may have deliberately been cribbing from McCay. For one thing, there’s the proximity of the title “Mr. Hicks in Nightmareland” to McCay’s famous comic “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” For another, there’s the elephant, which dances in a manner very similar to “Gertie the Dinosaur,” released the previous year. At any rate, the similar style is partly due to the sparse backgrounds, a result of the labor-intensive methods of creating animation in those days before cels had been invented. The movie overall works well enough, but the live action is visually uninspired and wouldn’t be any big deal in terms of plot or acting in 1915. It’s mostly a showcase for the animation, which would have been impressive at the time, even though it looks primitive today.

Director: Raoul Barré

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Maxine Brown, Johnnie Walker, William Chalfin

Run Time: 11 Min, 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903)

This early version of the famous novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a little hard to accept in the modern world, because of the associations we have with the title and the way it portrays the African American experience. Nonetheless, at the time of its release it was an important attempt to recreate an important work of literature on the screen, and compared to other movies of the time, it demonstrates high production values and a seriousness of tone.

The movie begins with the Intertitle “Eliza pleads with Tom to run away.” We then see some actors in blackface on a proscenium-style set that depicts a cabin in the snow. They talk with each other and pantomime their conversation. “Eliza” is accompanied by a small child, and “Tom” seems to have a wife or other woman living in his cabin. The next scene is “Phinias outwits the slave traders.” Here, on a set built to resemble a tavern or store, Eliza speaks to a white character, who shows her out the back door, then distracts a well-dressed white man with liquor. Other men come in and “Phinias” keeps them in a huddle while Eliza re-enters the stage, then sneaks her child and herself out through the window. When the men turn around, Phinias holds them at bay with pistols. “The Escape of Eliza” involves an elaborate outdoor set that re-creates a river with ice floes floating along it. Eliza and the child run upriver, pursued by dogs and a group of men, then float past the other direction on one of the ice floes. Some men who try to catch them fall into the river and have to be rescued. Next is the “Reunion of Eliza and George Harris,” which takes place in a large room with a spinning wheel. George tries to hide Eliza, and when the pursuers show up he shoots one of them in the  foot from a high vantage point, then shoots another one dead when they don’t leave.

The narrative now shifts away from Eliza with “Race between the Rob’t E. Lee and Natchez.” This river-boat race is shown with very obvious miniatures, and the losing boat explodes and catches fire at the end. I was expecting “Rescue of Eva” to be rescuing someone from the burning boat, but rather it shows a group of slaves dancing in front of the disembarkation of the winner. Eva, a small white child, trips and falls off the gangplank into the river, and Tom leaps in to save her. The next scene is “The Welcome home to St. Clair Eva Aunt Ophelia and Uncle Tom” [sic]. This shows what seems to be the entryway to a plantation home and more slaves dancing. Eva rides in on a pony. Tom is now dressed in a very fine butler’s uniform. “Tom and Eva in the Garden” is an extension of this happy home life sequence, with a cakewalk-style dance. This is then broken by “Death of Eva” in which a double-exposed image of an angel floats down and takes Eva’s soul from her body on the sickbed. Tom pantomimes his profound sorrow at the child’s death. In “St. Clair Defends Uncle Tom,” we see Tom and his owner enter a fancy saloon. Tom stands deferentially to one side while St. Clair drinks and reads the paper, but some white men start trouble with him and St. Clair gets up and fights them. He is killed in the fight.

The next scene, “Auction Sale of St. Clair’s Slaves” is often criticized because it shows the slaves dancing (again) before the auction begins. Even more stereotypically, two of them are playing craps as well (as if they would have anything to gamble). I think what was more significant to audiences at the time is that Tom is no longer in his servant’s finery, he now is clothed as a field hand. In the next scene, “Tom Refuses to Flog Ema’line” and is flogged himself. This takes place before a backdrop of the plantation field. Then, back at the plantation home of Tom’s new owner, “Marks Avenges Death’s of St. Clair and Uncle Tom” [sic] by coming on stage and unceremoniously shooting the white man. The movie concludes with “Tableau: Death of Tom,” which includes superimposed shots from a magic lantern of the eventual emancipation of the slaves over the broken figure of Tom, chained to a wall and dying.

The movie assumes either a live narrator or an intimate familiarity with the story, despite the forward-facing Intertitles that precede each screen, which was itself an innovation in 1903. I was able to follow some of it. It helps to know that Stowe was an abolitionist, and created the character of Tom as a good Christian whose basic decency and humanity was contrasted with the white slave drivers, whose Christianity was often hypocritical. We don’t think of “Uncle Tom” today as a term relating to showing African Americans as human beings, but that was the original intent of the novel. This version undercuts that somewhat by using blackface and portraying stereotypes, but the basic message is still there: Tom rescues a little girl and refuses to whip another slave and dies for it. It doesn’t really seem like the Eliza sub-plot adds much to this in this version, but presumably audiences familiar with the book would have expected to see it, and I was reasonably impressed with the special effects on the ice floe sequence.

Michelle Wallace, who gave the introduction to “Scrap in Black and White,” also introduces this movie on the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, pointing out the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin during the period (the same year, there was a version released by Lubin, a studio dedicated mainly to filmed versions of the classics), and to some degree defending it against its reputation as an agent of racism. I have some problems with the way she expresses this, saying that it is perhaps not “100% racist-fascist” and that it does not support the idea of “extermination” of black people in its interest in showing them at play or dancing. The problem is that these concepts do not apply in 1903. Fascism was still almost twenty years away in Italy and had no roots in American racism, which was never based on a need to exterminate black people. American racism did devalue black lives, and supported killing individual blacks, but the idea was to “keep them in their place,” as second class citizens, not to wipe them out. Of course, Stowe’s novel challenged this by arguing that a black man might be a better Christian than his white owners, but this version of the story preserves only part of that message, which is undercut by the stereotypical portrayals of African Americans on the screen.

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here with music).

 

The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)

This is a classic example of voyeurism in early film, but note that the term “gay” had no connection to same-sex eroticism at the time. It fits in with the general run of work that Edwin S. Porter was doing for the Edison Company at the time, but note that it is no “Great Train Robbery.”

Gay Shoe Clerk

Guess the genders and win a cocktail!

The original Edison catalog entry described the action thus: “Scene shows interior of shoe-store. Young lady and chaperone enter. While a fresh young clerk is trying a pair of high-heeled slippers on the young lady, the chaperone seats herself and gets interested in a paper. The scene changes to a very close view, showing only the lady’s foot and the clerk’s hands tying the slipper. As her dress is slightly raised, showing a shapely ankle, the clerk’s hands become very nervous, making it difficult for him to tie the slipper. The picture changes back to former scene. The clerk makes rapid progress with his fair customer, and while he is in the act of kissing her the chaperone looks up from her paper, and proceeds to beat the clerk with an umbrella. He falls backward off the stool. Then she takes the young lady by the arm, and leads her from the store.”

Gay Shoe Clerk1The key to this movie is the cut to the close-up, which allows the audience to see a “forbidden” part of a woman’s anatomy, emphasizing once again the effect which this produces on the male character, as in “What Demoralized the Barber Shop.” He is punished for his transgression, but the audience is encouraged to take pleasure from watching without consequences. The “shoe shop” set is interesting as well – it essentially consists of row after row of identical shoe boxes on the back wall, with no attempt at showing displays or other merchandizing. I believe this to be a somewhat accurate portrayal of stores at the time, based on other images I’ve seen, but it could also reflect the stingingess of Porter’s budget at Edison. Although there probably was no deliberate homoerotic intent behind the movie, I understand that the “girl” in the film is actually played by a man (it’s difficult to tell because of the hat “she” wears and the distance from the camera if this is really true), which makes the title seem all the more subversive to a modern audience.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Edward Boulden

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Dog Factory (1904)

This movie is a reversal on a common theme that started out with the Lumière brothers in the earliest days of cinema. Here, it is done by director Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Film Company in the year following his dramatic success with “The Great Train Robbery.”

Dog FactoryThe stage is hung with loops of sausage, each of which is labeled with the name of a dog (“spaniel,” “setter,” “pointer,” etc). At the center is a large box which is labeled “Patent DOG Transformator.” Two men attend the machine. Various characters come in with dogs, and have them reduced to sausages, to make sure we understand how it works (this is typical from the Lumière, Guy, and other versions). Next, a series of funny characters come in without dogs, and the men at the machine select a loop of sausage to add to the machine, and – voila! – a dog of the type chosen appears. The dogs are matched to the personality of their owners, ie a very proper lady receives a neatly groomed terrier, while a foppish gent takes a spaniel. At the end, a ruffian comes in and gets a bulldog, but he’s not tough enough, so the men create a “fighting bull” and the scene devolves into chaos between the dogs and the humans fighting each other.

Dog Factory1A couple of interesting points, here. Several of the previous movies suggested that sausages were made out of dogs and other unsavory items, but this is the first to suggest that they can be turned back into dogs if not eaten first. It seems like a better movie for dog-lovers, for sure! The original catalog entry says that the men running the machine are “Germans,” which may represent a prejudice of the time about Germans’ eating habits (like jokes today about Koreans ostensibly eating dogs), or it just may be because Germans eat sausage and are associated with mechanical inventiveness.

Animals in Film blogathonThis has been my contribution to the “Animals in Film” Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Dog lovers, and animal lovers of all sorts should head over and check out the other posts!

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Night Before Christmas (1905)

This is a 1905 Edison release with clearly seasonal intent from Edwin S. Porter, based loosely on the famous poem, much of which appears in the Intertitles.

Night_Before_Christmas_1905We open on Santa feeding his reindeer, then going inside to labor over toys in a crude woodshop. There is no sign of any Elves or “helpers” present, and it appears Santa must work backbreaking hours on each toy to produce it by hand. We then see the interior of a middle class home with a large family. There is a brief ritual in which the kids appear to write their wishes to Santa and throw them in the fireplace, then all the children run upstairs for their stockings to hang. The smaller ones are helped by the parents and a servant, possibly their nurse. Then they are led upstairs and the parents clear the room for the presents that will appear. The next sequence is in the children’s room, where the excited kids keep getting out of bed and causing the nurse to come back in. Eventually, they break out into a pillow-fight. Now we see Santa again, he goes through a big book with first names written in it, putting check marks next to some, and crossing others out (I noticed he laughed especially hard when he came to my name and crossed it out). He loads up his sleigh and there is an “effect” sequence in which we see a tiny model sleigh with eight reindeer dash across the (painted) countryside, evidently drawn by a string. They do very little flying, but do manage to get to the top of the house at the end. Now we switch back to live-action and Santa throws the bag of toys down the chimney before descending himself. He emerges in the middle-class dining room we saw before, and deposits toys in all the stockings, sometimes checking the letters in the fireplace. He then waves his arms and lots of bigger tows and decorations appear. He makes his signature wink, and goes up the chimney, just before all the kids run downstairs and eagerly start grabbing toys. The movie ends with a close-up on Santa with his finger beside his nose, and the words “Merry Christmas” at the bottom of the screen.

Night Before ChristmasNo doubt this was a successful movie in its day, with familiar material convincingly brought to life through simple storytelling techniques. The reindeer-sleigh sequence hasn’t held up terribly well, although its use does seem to add a kind of Méliès-charm to the whole thing (Méliès would’ve made them fly, I bet). The shots are static and scenes are edited in sequence. The one somewhat odd piece is the pillow fight, which isn’t in the original poem (indeed, supposedly “not a creature” should be “stirring”). Pillow fights were, interestingly enough, a fairly common subject at Edison, where they were seen to supply a certain slapstick humor to family fare, so I suppose Porter felt it would be appropriate to put one in here. My thought, as the pillows flew apart and feathers went everywhere, was that Santa should cross these naughty kids off his list!

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 9 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

A Winter Straw Ride (1906)

Winter Straw Ride1With December progressing apace, it’s time I come back to my seasonally-oriented movie reviews. This one depicts outdoor activities of an earlier generation and seems a lot more fun than “A Holiday Pageant at Home.”

Winter Straw Ride2Two horse-drawn sleds are loaded up in front of a stationary camera. The first seems to contain younger girls, the second is apparently grown women; possibly the pupils and teachers of an all-girls school are going on a sleigh ride before the school holidays. The succeeding shots show the two teams of horses approaching the camera as the sleighs dash over the snow. In one shot, a group of boys pelt the riders with snowballs. The sleighs cross a bridge and the girls wave at the camera. They enter a field and one of them tips over when going through a snowbank, and every gets out to right it, with some assistance from nearby onlookers, then they are off again! The next scene shows the girls and women chasing a group of men and boys. They catch an older man that looks like Teddy Roosevelt and smush his face in the snow, then continue the pursuit. The rest of the film is the boys running and the girls pursuing them. At one point, they all slide down a snowbank, until it collapses under their weight, revealing that there was no hill underneath, it had been piled up by the wind. Finally, in the last scene, the boys come to a steep ravine they cannot climb out of. The girls and women catch up and the chase devolves into a massive snowball fight.

Walk softly and carry a big snowball, Teddy.

Walk softly and carry a big snowball, Teddy.

I was ready for a cup of hot cocoa after I watched this one! It was made by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Manufacturing Company, presumably shot somewhere in New Jersey during the winter months. The snow doesn’t look that thick on the roads in some places, which may explain why they went into the fields. I don’t quite get why they abandoned the “straw ride” theme to run after boys for half of the movie, but Porter seems to have been fond of using the “chase” format to give some plot to his largely storyless vignettes. There is little camera movement, although the camera does pan a little as the sleighs go by and one critical pan takes place when they catch the man in the snow, and all editing is simply to put one scene after the other. Close-ups are essentially incidental, as the subjects run past the camera. Everyone in the movie seems to be having a good time, and when we can make out faces, they are smiling and laughing. This bit of snow sport seems much more in keeping with the spirit of Christmas than the rigid Victorian world of “Holiday Pageant” to me.

Winter Straw RideDirector: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 6 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (No music, good image) or here (with music, poorer quality image).

Great Train Robbery (1903): The Trailer

Hi folks, and welcome to my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association’s “Plains, Trains, and Automobiles” blogathon. I’m a little excited about this one, because I made a movie! Well, kind of. What I made was a new, high-powered trailer for the very old movie “The Great Train Robbery.” My idea is that this will be the kind of action-trailer that would actually get an audience that “doesn’t like old movies” excited to see one of the blockbusters of the past. I tried to do it exactly in the style of a big-budget action movie trailer. Did I succeed? Scroll down and judge for yourselves.

A word about copyright: I own this trailer, although of course the movie “The Great Train Robbery” is in public domain (as are all other films I used for clips) and people can do whatever they want with it. The music is originally from “Russian Sailor’s Dance” by Gliere, arrangement and foley by Toby Chappell. I fully encourage you to share this on your blog, twitter, facebook, whatever (let’s see it go viral), but please link back to the Century Film Project if you share it.

Planes Trains Automobiles

Children of Eve (1915)

Children of EveBy the end of 1915, the Edison Company had lost its position of prominence in the film industry, and crushing losses in legal battles had guaranteed that it could no longer benefit from the work of others. Nevertheless, it still continued to release movies like this one, no longer innovating and inspiring others, but following trends established by others in the field. Apparently, it was hoped that by making “message” pictures such as this one, they could be perceived as artistic leaders if not industry chiefs. The result in fact was less box office popularity and the final decline of the studio.

a swinging joint

a swinging joint

“Children of Eve” begins by showing us the meeting of Henry Clay Madison (played by Robert Conness), a studious young man, and his flophouse neighbor, Flossie, a dancer at the Follies. Madison tries to reform Flossie (Nellie Grant), and, in doing so, falls in love with her. She returns his feelings, but fears that she will end up dragging him to her level if they marry. So, she departs, just as Madison is beginning to find some success in business. As it happens, she delivers a baby girl and dies after leaving him, and he takes on his brother’s (?) child as an adoptive son. The son (played by Robert Walker), Bert, is raised in luxury, while the daughter (Viola Dana, the real star of the movie, who went on to do “Blue Jeans” and “Naughty Nanette”), Fifty-Fifty Mamie, lives in poverty, unknown and unacknowledged by her father. She makes her living through cheap cons and winning dance contests, while he takes an interest in social reform, urging his now jaded father to reconsider his child labor practices. They meet when Mamie tries to hide out in the reform office after stealing a large feathery thing from a cart. Paralleling his father’s course, he tries to reform her and falls in love, and Mamie stays up all night with a sick woman and starts reading the Bible, showing her interest. Her real turning point comes when an old cohort shoots a policeman, and Mamie refuses to give him shelter. Meanwhile, Bert gets a fever and yells out her name. Madison affirms his belief in the moral lesson in the note Flossie wrote so long ago, and encourages Mamie to leave Bert as Flossie left him. Mamie is recruited to investigate labor conditions at Madison’s factory, but while she is there a fire breaks out and children are killed by smoke inhalation before the fire fighters can get to them. Mamie is dragged out, unconscious, and given little chance to survive. Madison discovers the old picture of her mother and learns, too late, that this was his daughter. Bert arrives just in time for Mamie to die in his arms.

Children of Eve2

The central theme of this movie was the dangers of child labor and poor working conditions, and the fire scene was based on the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, which was still a major scandal at the time. Due to lack of fire escapes and a locked shopfloor, hundreds of women and young girls were trapped in a burning building, with 146 deaths resulting. The director, John Collins, wrote the scene to evoke that event, and tied it in to a message of reform and Christian charity. However, the plot winds up being both overcomplicated and predictable at the same time, and the story never quite seems to come together. In a lot of ways, the movie is reminiscent of Raoul Walsh’s “Regeneration,” of the same year, but it never manages to be as visually or narratively compelling.

Children of Eve3

Technically, I’d rate the movie as middling for 1915. There are close-ups, cross-cutting, and some camera movement, but most of the movie suffers from being shot on small sets at 90-degree angles, with “stagey” action. Unfortunately, little of the movie was shot in the streets of New York, which were still close to the Edison home base, and most exteriors just show doorways. There are some good exterior scenes on the rooftops when the cop and the crook have their shootout, and also some visually interesting shots on a large set representing the dance hall. The windows of each tenement apartment look out onto painted flats, but at least the cinematographers thought to have a different view for each one, and also used lighting on these flats to show night- and daytime. The “big scene” of the factory fire is reasonably suspenseful, but doesn’t show any really new or exciting footage – it could almost be Edison’s “Life of an American Fireman,” with better editing.

Director: John H. Collins

Screenplay: John H. Collins

Camera: John Arnold, Ned Van Buren

Starring: Viola Dana, Robert Conness, Nellie Grant, Robert Walker, Tom Blake

Run Time: 1hr 14 Min

I have been unable to find a reliable copy for free on the Internet. If you know where one can be seen, please say so in the comments.

Execution of Czolgosz, with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901)

Last year, on July 4th, I posted about the first filmed footage of an American presidential candidate, “William McKinley at Home in Canton, Ohio.” It seemed like a good way to link the heritage of the United States to the early film industry, and it was a short film that was easy to download and review. Much to my surprise, it rapidly became the most popular movie review, in terms of hits, on my entire blog. It has since been surpassed by Charlie Chaplin’s “The Tramp,” but still holds a respectable position. Americans remain fascinated by the history of the Presidency, it seems.

President William McKinley

President William McKinley

Having started with the beginning of McKinley’s presidential career, I’m following up this year with its conclusion. On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shot by an anarchist assassin, Leon Czolgosz. He lingered, then died about a week later. The country mourned as several films were released showing his funeral parade, the public process ending with this movie, made by Edison studios and directed by Edwin S. Porter, the man who would make “The Great Train Robbery” just two years later. Porter’s original plan had been to film the actual execution, but he was refused permission by the prison authorities. So, he improvised.

Leon Czolgosz

Leon Czolgosz

What we see at first is a “pan” of the prison walls, the beginning of which coincides with a train passing, although there is a jump-cut mid pan and the train disappears. The bleakness of the location is underscored by the leafless trees (this was shot in October or November). Supposedly, this footage was taken on the day of the execution, and, given that Porter had planned to be there in order to shoot that day, it seems possible. Then we cut to a very obvious set, and see some less obvious actors take a man disguised as Czolgosz from a cell. Next comes a view of a large room with a strange-looking device in the middle. Some electricians, it seems, are checking out the electric chair. Once they are satisfied, the prisoner is brought in and hooked up. The electricity is turned on three times, and each time he stiffens, then relaxes. Finally, two doctors check him with a stethoscope, and confirm that he is dead.

 Execution of Czolgosz1

The above is done in three shots, edited together in sequence. This was a fairly new idea – previously a single movie meant a single strip of film shot continuously, and attempts to tell longer stories had been made by shooting a series of short scenes, which were sold separately and not necessarily screened in order. This new way of taking bits of a film from different places and stringing them together allowed for much more sophisticated story-telling, essentially giving us the birth of film editing. Note also the use of the panorama of the prison as an “establishing shot,” as is often done when the outside of a building is shown before the action moves inside to a studio space, signaling to the audience that the action takes place within the building just seen, in the context of the story, when of course it may have been shot in an entirely different location in reality.

 Execution of Czolgosz

What’s not entirely clear is whether audiences knew they were seeing a reenactment of a execution, or whether they thought they were witnessing the actual event. Edison’s catalog was honest enough in selling to distributors, but it’s hard to know what exhibitors were saying to their customers. Today it is easy to spot the phony walls of the prison interiors, but were inexperienced audiences of 1901 as discerning? I don’t know for sure. It also seems likely that the movie would have been shown with a narration by the exhibitor, or at least mood-setting music, which makes the presentation different from what we get to see. It was apparently a popular item at the time, which may be interpreted as a morbid fascination with death by audiences, or a sense of justice and wanting to witness the important historical events of their time.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Possbly Porter or James H White (or both)

Run Time: 3 Min, 25 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Feeding the Doves (1896)

Feeding the Doves

I first saw this Edison short back in the late twentieth century, when I was in film school, only it was presented as a woman feeding chickens. This resulted in my belief for some time that, “a hundred years ago, chickens could fly,” because midway through the film, some noise causes all the doves to suddenly take flight. Watching it again today, it all makes more sense. There’s a mixture of doves and chickens on the screen, with the chickens mostly in the foreground. Thus, when the birds suddenly leap into the air, what you notice on the ground are the remaining chickens, giving a sort of optical illusion you have seen chickens fly. This appears not to be the case. This movie is actually historically interesting, because it marks the point (October 23, 1896), where Edison started sending prints on paper to the Library of Congress for copyright. This resulted in the inadvertent preservation of a number of films whose negatives were otherwise lost. The flight of the doves adds a good deal of motion to the image, which is probably why someone offscreen made a loud noise to make a more interesting movie.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 25 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.